Men don’t change. That’s a widely held belief shared by men and women. Who a man is when a woman meets him is the man he’ll always be. Men are stuck in their dysfunctional behavior and have no interest or ability to change it. A woman in a relationship with an angry man has to decide whether or not to remain in the relationship and absorb his anger, or leave him. These are all false beliefs.
I grew up believing that people don’t change, because my father relentlessly raged out of control, dispensing physical and emotional violence on me. It wasn’t much of a stretch to believe men don’t change because if they did, my father would have become a calmer, more reasonable man.
I grew up and became a man who raged and I inflicted anger on women in relationships and anyone else I felt had crossed me. I did a fairly good impersonation of my father. The major difference was that I didn’t inflict anger on my sons, because on a deep, loving level I knew they didn’t deserve it.
Twenty years ago, in my early forties, I had all of the outward accouterments of success. I was a successful entrepreneur. I had a house at the beach, fast cars, motorcycles, and a steady supply of women who liked bad boys with toys. I should have been deliriously happy, right?
I was miserable, lonely, and weary from countless dysfunctional relationships with women. I didn’t have a man friend who I felt I could trust, and I was relegated to second guessing myself at every turn because I didn’t. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.
My business partner bought tickets to a Robert Bly day in San Francisco. I didn’t know who he was, but I was desperate and decided to listen to someone who professed to know about men. That day changed my life forever.
The next morning I asked my business partner if he was interested in starting a men’s group with me. We found seven other men in a week, and held our first meeting ten days after the Bly workshop. We were nine dysfunctional, angry men. We had misogynists, narcissists, angry men, serial daters, and men who had no sense of theirs or other people’s boundaries.
We decided not to have a leader or facilitator because we were independent, strong-willed men. Our dysfunctions surfaced immediately. One man stated, “I think a woman’s best purpose in life is a pleasure unit.” His comment was shouted down by eight other men. I got into my tough guy, angry mode in a flash and jumped down his throat. Everyone began shouting his thoughts, but no one expressed any feelings. Naturally, the shouting went on until it was clear to everyone that we were never going to accomplish anything until we could figure out a better way to talk to each other.
What we quickly gleaned was that talking about what we thought was merely expressing our opinions, and opinions weren’t going to change anything because they were debatable and resulted in circular arguments that resolved nothing.
We figured out that talking about our feelings was a better direction because what we came to understand is that when a man expresses his feelings, he’s expressing his absolute truth. No one could deny or challenge another man’s feelings.
From that point early on in the group, issues that were raised were discussed in terms of feelings instead of opinions. When judgments, opinions, and advice were substituted by sharing our experiences on an emotional level, the group shot forward. Healing began and behavior changed.
Not all of the men moved at the same pace. Some had difficulty accessing their feelings and kept talking about what they thought. At first the group was gentle with the men who lagged behind, but eventually what became clear was that the guys who either refused or were incapable of speaking from their hearts were holding the rest of the group back. All it takes is one reluctant man whose behavior acts like an anchor holding the group in place, to destroy the fabric of the group.
We lost a few men after a while and replaced them with men who seemed to have a better understanding of what we hoped to achieve together.
My first issue was my raging temper, which I finally understood had affected all of my relationships with women and prevented me from building trusting relationships with men. I was asked to talk about my boyhood, and after a few moments of anxiety and terror I let loose with the horror story that had been my life as a boy with my father. The tears flowed freely and it took a while before the pain I had held in for decades subsided enough to listen to other men talk about their experiences in relation to mine. I wasn’t alone any longer. I didn’t have to second guess myself because I had men in my life who cared about me and were willing to listen to my stories and share theirs with me.
In the years that followed, men dealt with divorce, fatherhood, trust, anger, relationships, dating, death, and more. No one was alone, ever. While we meet twice a month, we also meet for lunch, coffee, or just to share our current problems. The wisdom of the group is its collection of the experience of its members and serves as an encyclopedia of male behavior.
Four years ago I felt I had learned enough about myself and relationships to get married after twenty-five years of dating. I had learned the skills required to be in a successful relationship and I’m proud to be a good husband and partner.
The men in my group were all happy for me when I told them I was getting married, and I think they took pride in knowing that they had helped me change my behavior.
But not everyone was pleased. I called an old friend who I hadn’t seen in years and told him I was getting married. He yelled at me, telling me I was stupid and that I should live with her, not marry her. He went on to tell me that he thought I was a jerk because I kept changing and reinventing myself, while he was the same man he’d always been for forty years. When he said that, I felt sad for him. He had no close men friends, couldn’t understand the path I was following to become a better man, and didn’t realize that forty years of being the same, dysfunctional man, was tragic, not rock steady.
Women often ask me, “Where are all the good men?” The answer is that they’re in small groups with other men trying to become better men, husbands, boyfriends, friends, and fathers.
Act like a man!